This week, the Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Ave.) celebrates its ten year anniversary. While today, that stretch of Wythe Avenue in northern Williamsburg is home to several upscale boutique hotels, ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. Wythe was the first.
In addition to being a beautiful structure near the water, the building that houses the Wythe Hotel has a storied past. In 1901, it was a factory that made barrels for sugar refiners and after that, it was a textile factory which produced fabrics for the Space Program.
In 2012, the Wythe Hotel became part of the building’s history. Greenpointers spoke with Peter Lawrence, one of Wythe’s owners, about his decision to open in an abandoned area of the Brooklyn waterfront, how the area has changed, and his favorite thing about the hotel.
Greenpointers: Congratulations on ten years in Williamsburg! What made you choose this particular neighborhood for the Wythe Hotel?
Peter Lawrence: In 2008, my business partner and I felt that Brooklyn was long overdue for a hotel that felt like it belonged in Brooklyn. There are great hotels in Manhattan that feel like they belong in those neighborhoods, but Brooklyn did not have offerings.
So, we started by searching for an existing building that was close to a subway in an interesting neighborhood in Brooklyn. Instead, we found this beautiful building in the middle of nowhere that was a mile from the subway. It was nowhere near anything, but we fell in love with the building.
Greenpointers: You mentioned you started looking in 2008, but we know the hotel opened in 2012. What happened in those years in between?
Lawrence: Two weeks after we found the property, the stock market collapsed. There was no money for a hotel, and it took two years to figure out the finance piece.
It was a rough time, but it worked out in the end. We had the time to try different versions of layouts. Architects kept redrawing. The end result benefited from us having lots of time. We were prepared. At the end of 2010, we got the financing for the hotel. And in May 2012, we opened.
Greenpointers: What was the first year like?
Lawrence: Well, it was a bit of an instant success. We ended up being much more successful than we anticipated. We would have been thrilled if people spent $200 a night and we were half full. But people knocked the doors down.
A lot of people lived, worked, and played in Brooklyn, but there was nowhere to put family and clients in Brooklyn nearby. Brooklynites were thrilled to have somewhere to send visitors near them instead of in Manhattan.
We imagined we would serve a limited product at first. For example, we started off with no room service. But we have had to adjust. It’s been a little challenging, but mostly fun.
We were still figuring out who we were when we opened. We had never opened a hotel before and made up our own playbook. People started describing us as a luxury boutique hotel on day one, but we had concrete floors on hotel rooms and weren’t trying to be luxury. We still don’t have slippers in the rooms because we don’t want them thrown out everyday. People complain about things like that. It’s an ongoing negotiation with guests’ expectations.
Greenpointers: What has been the biggest change over the past ten years?
Lawrence: The neighborhood around us has changed a lot. We got very lucky with the neighbors who have moved in. There are cool and interesting places that bring their own crowds and have made our area more diverse. It used to be a dead zone in terms of activity and retail. But it’s starting to fill in. I used to tell guests to walk south into Williamsburg proper. But now I encourage them to walk north into Greenpoint.
So, I’d say the biggest change has been the trajectory of the borough. Brooklyn has become an international brand. The hotel captured that particular moment when everyone wanted a piece of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is now an international destination for everything. It’s a hub of creativity. People choose to be here, not because they are priced out of Manhattan. It’s a choice.
Greenpointers: I’m detecting a bit of an accent. Where are you from and how did you end up in New York?
Lawrence: I grew up in Australia. I’ve worked in five-star hotels, like Grand Hyatts. I was trained in a very proper sense. I found that version of service very formal. There was space between the person offering the service and the person receiving it.
Then, I ran nightclubs in Melbourne, the type where there would be 3,500 people coming through the door on Saturday night. I learned an enormous amount about operations and human nature. I ran a much bigger staff than I had any business running at 22.
But, that was not a healthy lifestyle, and I needed a change. So I came to New York in 1994 to put a punctuation mark in my life. New York has been generous and kind to me. I found my place here.
I opened healthy fast food places and a Spanish tapas bar and worked with those for ten years. My business partner and I parted ways, and I started talking about hotels again. I have always been in hospitality one way or the other.
Greenpointers: What’s your favorite thing about the Wythe Hotel?
Lawrence: The people! I mean both the people working here and the people who are visiting.
They fill my life and my day with all of their ups and downs. Lots of young people come to New York out of ambition and often because they don’t fit where they came from. That’s a small part of my story, but not in a traumatic way. I love the young community; they challenge and educate me. Plus, they are good at advocating for themselves.
There are real connections made by the team and visitors. You’ll see doormen give out high fives. That is how I want the place to feel. We can design a beautiful thing and have perfect music and lighting, but none of it works unless the people turning up everyday are genuinely curious.
Greenpointers: What does the future hold?
Lawrence: It will be interesting to see! We survived COVID, and I’m proud of the way we behaved during the pandemic. We took care of our team. We also opened the hotel to doctors and nurses for two months during the thick of the pandemic. We knew people would be sick, but the young healthy people came to work.
After COVID, peoples’ relationships with work is in flux. I’m curious to see how that will affect hospitality in general. People will be in the office less. And we’ll see how people will make use of hotels and bars. Will it be a radical shift?
Now, I watch the work that’s going on with the parks on Kent Ave. I know some locals hope to be able to walk from Domino to Greenpoint. The city has a history of putting things you don’t want to deal with up against the water, but the water is a fabulous amenity.
I’m excited to see the next wave of projects that pop up, and to see how the city adapts and how our little corner of Brooklyn will develop.